learned my mycins early. Bacterial infection remedies once fit on a flash card, with penicillin lording over all comers. New and costlier pebbles soon followed. Antibiotics suddenly flourished the way mortars and gas did in the 30s and 40s, as if their curative powers could expiate mid-century sins.
By the time my respiratory organs learned the fine arts of insurrection, erythromycin, tetracycline, and doxacycline were arrayed against them.
Fitting that my doctor saw world peace as an illusion. A field medic in Germany during World War II, Doctor Berryman was at home with enemies.
I’d plop into his big white barbershop chair and he’d enunciate the menace posed by PLO Arabs, New York intellectuals, trigger-happy Jews, Castro Cubans and lawyers, all the while peering into my nose. My ear canal made the global menace even more palpable. “Disturbing,” he said, though it was never clear whether he’d seen a New York intellectual or uncovered an infection.
I disturbed Berryman often. I once put pieces of sour cherry chewing gum into my left ear to concoct a stay-home-from-school excuse. All went well until my ear began howling and I was ferried — guilt-ridden and terrified — to Doctor Berryman, who after taking one look into the much-abused ear began literally barking. How could I do such a thing to my poor ear? I wept.
“We may have to detonate Suez,” he told me gravely. Doctor Berryman had nicknamed my ears Panama and Suez, based on the geopolitics of the day and the troubles the two organs caused him (I worried my nose might soon become Berlin).
Suez, my left ear, made more trouble Panama, which seemed inclined to retain hearing. Mischief-maker Suez instead wanted to make painful news at all costs. It took Doctor Berryman 20 minutes to extract the gum from Suez’s murky depths (minus detonations). He also promised me that the next time anything foreign penetrated Suez or Panama, one or both appendages would be surgically removed.
At the time, most doctors were Henry Fonda-like. People knew less. Some lorded over patients like grandparents or soothsayers, their diagnoses taken as grail. Doctors were order-bringers. There was no Internet to inform and excite aggressive and litigious patients. The new availability of medical data, while useful, has also made patients more anxious and most doctors more rigid. Both sides lose.
Doctor Berryman played a spelling game called “What’s My Mycin?” a pun on a television game show of the time. He’d stick an ungainly tube into each of my nostrils to flush out my sinuses using a saline water solution that drained into a translucent jar. Against the light, the brackish stew was thick with particles that leapt around like crazed minnows. “Disturbing,” he’d say. “See these,” and he’d point at the jar. “These, young man, are the infection.” He’d then prescribe the appropriate antibiotic and make me spell it.
Before the many mycins, tetracycline ruled the planet, infection-busting orange and white tablets. After that came erythromycin, which Doctor Berryman called “the most effective macrolide on the market.” I immediately decided macrolide and asteroid were my two favorite words, since I understood neither and inevitably misspelled “macraloyd.” These days, macrolides are dispensed like candy, subtracting from the immune system’s learning curve.
In the end neither Arabs nor lawyers got to Doctor Berryman. Mycins don’t help at 98. His three sons picked up his practice and flourished. But it wasn’t the same. During Berryman’s stewardship doctors were not medical professionals but white-coated fixers. My father’s doctor was “a lung man,” someone else’s a “heart guy,” while Berryman was all “ear, nose and throat” with substantial conspiracies on the side.
Disciplines also changed. Berryman’s sons and their partners began advertising enhancements, fixes, removals, face sculpting. Their bread-and-butter clientele is less concerned with repairing sinuses than limiting the effects of aging. New-age mycins are better known as drugs to limit infection following cosmetic surgery.
All of which has left my aging Panama and Suez in the cold. Without anyone to fuss over them, they’re inert (though Suez is occasionally nostalgic for forbidden gum). As for world peace, Doctor Berryman’s usual suspects would still cause him woe. Worse still, antibiotics are beginning to lose their mojo, as if even expiation came with an expiry date.